Inside Sheila Johnson’s Salamander Resort & Spa

The luxury hotel has been in planning for more than a decade.

By: Lydia Strohl

When the veil is lifted on August 29, Salamander Resort & Spa will have been in the planning more than ten years—plenty of time for Sheila Johnson to slip in lots of luxury touches.

The resort sits just outside Middleburg on 340 acres. The 168-room, 250,000-square-foot hotel is built to evoke a country estate, with a pale plaster facade, a stone courtyard, terraces, and wrought-iron balconies. One wing houses corporate meeting rooms and a 5,000-square-foot ballroom.

“It’s elegant but not formal,” says Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, who hopes the spaces become a hub not just for guests but for locals. “We wanted it to look like an old building that’s been around for a long time. No shiny finishes.”

Newly distressed wood beams line corridors, and classical millwork accentuates ceilings. Metal and glass lighting was inspired by carriage lamps. Large windows bring the outside in. Horse and walking trails wind through the property, and there’s a family pool and snack bar, an equestrian center with a riding ring, a scenic pond, a putting green, and a treetop canopy tour.

The large foyer gives way to a grand living room, with fireplaces on both sides and groupings of lounge-friendly furniture that aim to keep things cozy despite 21-foot ceilings. French doors open to a terrace overlooking the 100,000-square-foot grand lawn, where guests can play bocce and croquet. Next to the living room is a wood-paneled library housing 2,000 volumes purchased when the town library underwent renovation, plus a wine bar with a billiard room, where local winemakers are anticipated for afternoon tastings.

The main restaurant, Harrimans, has a terrace overlooking a garden where guests can pick their own ingredients with the chef. An adjacent private dining room, designed like a tack room, will be lined with equestrian trophies won by Johnson’s daughter and other local riders.

The kitchen’s design was overseen by culinary director and chef Todd Gray, owner of downtown DC’s Equinox, and features a classroom for cooking lessons and corporate events. A native of the area—he’s from nearby Fredericksburg—Gray is focusing on ingredients from the Tidewater region, which spans from Virginia to North Carolina. Johnson’s relatively recent switch to veganism also informs the offerings; she and Gray have been consulting with a raw-food/vegan chef. A sneak peak at the menu reveals locally harvested treats such as blue crab, Rappahannock River oysters, Angus beef from the Plains, and Berkshire pork from Pennsylvania. In-season, local vegetables will star on every plate, many grown in the kitchen gardens or at Johnson’s nearby farm.

In the opposite wing from the restaurant, a walkway lined with waterfalls leads to a 23,000-square-foot spa boasting 14 treatment rooms, some with private outdoor areas and fireplaces, as well as a fitness center and indoor pool. Guests can rent cabanas at the private spa pool. The spa also has a rasul, a domed, tiled steam room where couples apply mud to each other; after 40 minutes in hydrating steam, cleansing waters jet from the ceiling.

Guest rooms feature traditional decor, with photographs taken by Johnson, 300-thread-count linens, and marble bathrooms. Some rooms have fireplaces, all have terraces or balconies, and some of the ground-floor rooms are dog-friendly.

Rates will start at $425 a night in peak season (April through June, September and October), $275 for non-peak, with packages and group pricing available.

Johnson is also planning events on the property, such as this fall’s Middleburg Film Festival, which she spearheaded; among other movies, she hopes to screen Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a feature she executive-produced. The Windy Hill Fashion Show, a popular annual fundraiser previously held on her farm, will move to the resort.

Next year, Salamander hopes to break ground for 49 luxury homes on 60 acres of the resort bordering the village, with a pedestrian walkway to town. The homes, which Devadas anticipates will start at $2 million, will have groundskeeping, housekeeping, laundry and room service, access to the spa and fitness facilities, and restaurant discounts.